Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Trip to Clarks Hill, 2007

The bridge at Mackinac

Back at home this morning. I didn’t keep track of how many miles and miles per gallon. This was a different kind of trip. A trip I was going to take no matter what the logistical outcome. It wasn’t a matter of could I afford it, but rather how I would afford it.

We left Ashland last Wednesday morning. We drove across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and crossed the Mackinaw bridge. We took Interstate 75 South down to US Highway 23. We followed 23 all the way down through Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and into North Carolina. We used another road, Interstate 26 through North Carolina down into South Carolina and ended up using two-lane State and County roads to weave our way into Augusta, Georgia.

We stayed in Augusta, but our destination was a scant 12 miles North of there, just across the Savannah River, to a small town called Clarks Hill in South Carolina. The Savannah River is damned at Clarks Hill and makes a lake that used to be called Clarks Hill Lake. It is now called Strom Thurmond Lake after the long time Senator from South Carolina. Local residents, and I, will know it as Clarks Hill Lake and the Clarks Hill Dam.

We got there on Friday in the late afternoon. I called the contact number I had, a woman named Shirley who had found my name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall website. I had written there in the guest book for my friend, Frazier Dixon. Frazier was killed in Vietnam on December 3, 1969. I was there when he died, with him, touched him.

Shirley was looking for information about a fallen member of the community of Clarks Hill. Shirley lives near Atlanta now, but her Mother still lives in Clarks Hill. She went to school there and knew Frazier Dixon. When she contacted me, neither she nor I knew what was going to happen, but the contact was made. Now, I had come down to attend a Veterans Program that was being put on by an Elder and retired school teacher, Mrs. Scott.

Mrs. Scott has had this program for Veterans since 2002. She holds it at the Bethany Baptist Church in Clarks Hill. In the past years, attendance hasn’t been very high. Mrs. Scott felt that this would be her last year putting on the program since no one seemed to appreciate it. It is simple. A few songs, a few readings, a scripture and a feed after the Veterans announced themselves with a few words about what branch of service they were in and when they served.

When I heard that Shirley wanted to gather any information she could find about Frazier Dixon, to include him, in spirit, at the Veterans Program, I got interested in going down there and attending myself. What I hadn’t expected was the outpouring of humanity and emotion from the Bethany Baptist Church community in Clarks Hill.

When Shirley reported that I was coming there and that I knew Frazier in Vietnam and that I was his friend and that I was with him when he died, many faithful members of the church called others, family members of Frazier’s, school mates of Frazier’s. Other Veterans of the community, some that had never come to the Veterans Program before this, came out in force.

When I got there, I went to the cemetery which is on the hill, right behind the church. I walked around and spotted the cement slab covering and bronze flat headstone. Frazier’s name was there, big as life. I felt Like I had come full circle. It wasn’t all a dream at all. Sometimes I wondered about my own memory of Vietnam. Detached and so far away from it and with each year, I get farther away.

Grave site of a friend. Clarks Hill, South Carolina

I always wanted to tell somebody about it. About me knowing him. A number of years ago, when I wrote in that Wall website guest book, I did get contacted by a man named Claude. Claude wrote me and told me he knew the family of Frazier Dixon and that was all. Then, a phone call, from a man named James who told me he knew some of the family too. James on the phone and Claude in a letter. I wrote back to Claude and told him how I knew Frazier.

It was such an honor to meet Claude and James. They both remembered the contact. We figured it was in 2002. Claude had gotten copies of that letter and it was included in the scrapbook and album that Mrs. Scott had from the Veterans Programs of the years before. I got to read a letter I wrote in 2002.

Newest friend of the Spado family, Shirley, with James to her left and Claude farther left behind James, in the black jacket. Bethany Baptist dining hall. Veterans Program dinner.

It was an honor to meet all the people. Every single one of them. When it was my turn to speak, I told them that I had the spirit of Frazier Dixon with me for many years and that I was bringing him home. I wasn’t going to forget him. I was going to share him with them. Would you believe I got an “Amen” for that? What a feeling, for a Native American traditional spiritualist and recovering Catholic to get an Amen in a Baptist church in South Carolina?

I noticed that flowers seem to be on every grave at every cemetery in the South. As we drove, we saw oceans of flowers as we passed by cemetery plots. I bought a lawn base and an arrangement of seasonal silk flowers and put them next to the headstone of my friend at Bethany.

People started to arrive, and Shirley came. She is the only one I knew and I was waiting for her. She would introduce me to people. I knew her Mother would be there and a sister of hers. She also told me of a man who was Frazier’s best friend during high school. His name is Anthony.

I met Anthony first. And Anthony’s sister who was helping with the dinner. Then I met Shirley’s Mother and sister. Then I met several people all in a row. James, the guy I talked to on the phone and Claude, the man who wrote me years earlier. I met Deborah, one of Frazier’s first cousins. I met an Aunt and three other cousins. Other school mates and other members of the community that remembered Frazier. I met Mrs. Scott. Everyone seemed very excited that I was there.

I was excited to be there. As I sat in the church and the male choir group was singing, I had a feeling come over me that I can’t explain in any words known to mankind. What was I doing there? Why had I traveled through my lifetime, and now was receiving this gift of being with people that made me feel so welcome and warm? Like they knew me and had known me for a long time?

The Veterans who attended the Program at Bethany Baptist Church. Clarks Hill, SC November 17, 2007

After the program and through the dinner, I talked with so many people from Clarks Hill. A friend who described Frazier as being like a big brother to him and a cousin who remembered the military car in the driveway a long time ago. Those Veterans who knew him and knew he had died in combat action. They all wanted to know if it was true. After all these years, they knew he was dead, but they still hadn’t known, or believed, what the Army had told them. They didn’t believe the Army when they came and told them because the casket was sealed so tightly.

The casket was sealed shut. No pry bar or anything could have opened it. The Army delivered it this way, sealed, with a cement cover, cemented in place. I knew why it was sealed. It puzzled them for many years as no explanation can be remembered as given.

A month or two ago, I wrote some very personal memoirs about my time in Vietnam. I posted it as a four part series. I left it up for a while and then deleted it from the Round Circle Blog. In that four part post, I explained my involvement with Frazier Dixon. I explained why that casket was sealed. I never knew why I was ready to share that, but I was. Then, all this happens and I had to share it again. I didn’t want to go through the whole story in detail while visiting these old friends and family. I printed out the four part story and gave it to Shirley, she herself a Veteran by the way, and nodded my head as to why the casket was sealed and that he did die and that I was with him.

Some of the faces were disappointed, as if I was going to tell them that he was okay. Others, most of them, exhaled because they finally found out what happened and how he died, and they heard it from his friend, and not the Army. They used the word “Closure”. One man held my hand for five minutes as I stood there and held his back.

Deborah, his cousin, took us to the house, or where the house was, where Frazier grew up. We stood out in the road talking, six of us, where Grandma and Grandpa lived, by the ball field, on a road called Dew Drop Inn. I heard all about how Anthony and Frazier were liked by all the girls. I heard about how they’d walk to town and to Bethany for services.

We stood there talking, like the teens might have gathered, talking and laughing, many years ago.

I’d been to war as a young man. I held my friend when he died. 38 years, almost to the day, later, here I was. In his home town with the people who he went to school with, with his cousins, with his friends. I am so blessed by some power more significant than I can ever imagine. To be led here, at this time, in this life. To heal and be a healer, to let others be healers. To share smiles, brotherhood and love. Mending parts of my broken heart

Closure. Knowing that it’s okay now. Knowing we can let go of his spirit. Knowing he won’t be back because a friend came and told us so. I was the savior that day for so many, but they saved me as well. It was closure for me. To see his childhood, his relatives and friends. They know one of their own is gone and they reached out to touch me, a small part of him. I reached out to them.

Shirley has been great through all of this. She made us feel so welcome. Right from the start when we met her at the motel in Augusta. We went out to eat and had a special dinner. We talked on the phone. She even called as we traveled home to check our progress, telling us that everyone was praying for our safe travel. Telling me we were family now. We are part of Frazier’s community. Plans were being made for when I return. whether it be for next years Veterans Program, or for another trip I might want to make to come and visit. She gave me a fine gift, a plaque with the words of a song along with the CD of Bette Midler singing it, and gave Mrs. Spadoman a fine crystal bowl.

But more, she, and the others, gave me love. And closure. And I made new friends. And I have more family now. Mrs Scott, getting on in years and wondering why the attendance at the Veterans Program wasn’t very good, had said that this would be the last time she puts on the program. She changed her mind when that church and dining hall was full of people. She has decreed that she will have one next year. In itself, when a ninety one year old elder makes plans for an event next year, that means something.

We left Augusta, GA on Sunday morning and drove through Georgia and into Tennessee. Through Nashville and into Kentucky. Past Paducah and into Illinois. Right up the gut, and a night of sleep in Mt. vernon, we kept up the Northerly trek and landed in Ashland on Monday evening.

We ate BBQ and southern fried chicken. Boiled peanuts and fried pies. Fresh pink lady apples. I brought home country ham steaks, jam, jelly, hot chow chow, hot BBQ sauce and sorghum, which I plan on using soon on some buckwheat pancakes. That church dinner was good, too. I’ll never eat Macaroni n’ cheese without baking it to form a thick crust on top, ever again. And I’ll put some ham hocks in my green beans. And grits. I like grits.

We have Shirley on the speed dial. I have a card with addresses and phone numbers for Claude. Deborah will be sending me a picture of Frazier from High School days. I’ll send Mrs. Scott a thank you note, and thank yous to others, too. Especially Shirley, my newest sister.

All in all, a whirlwind chapter in this spinning life. A tough act to follow. I’ll remember this experience and hold it right up there with watching the children being born and getting married. And I will get back there, to Clarks Hill, again some day. Maybe this summer for a few days of camping along the Savannah River and a Saturday night fish fry with my friends.